In the aftermath of tragedy, look for the helpers

As a community reporter I often find myself walking into a school for a story or photo. The stories I am able to share from our schools are some of my favorite to put to the page.

This week, I was scheduled to visit Champlin Brooklyn Park Academy (CBPA) at 9:30 a.m. Monday morning, three days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. It was the first day school was in session since the tragedy. The flags were lowered to half-staff at CBPA but that was the only discernible difference I could see from the outside.

Inside, I greeted a group of students bubbling with pride over their efforts to collect enough food and gifts to provide for a happier holiday for 28 local families. When four kindergarteners were ushered in to join us for a photo op, I couldn’t help but think of how little they are; how much of their lives have yet to unfold.

Despite being filled with sadness, I smiled as one by one, those cherubic children looked me very earnestly in the eye and spelled out their first and last names with a concerted inhalation and exhalation of breath between each letter. I sensed for some of them this is a newly learned feat. To think of that innocence shattered is almost too overwhelming.

Local school districts responded almost immediately to the news of last week’s tragedy by assuring their own parents in the Anoka-Hennepin and Elk River Area that safety protocols are in place and are practiced regularly. Osseo School District also sent information home to parents.

Schools have grappled with how to proceed. Should they have a discussion with students or should they focus on the regular routines of school?

All available staff were present to welcome kids to the school Monday morning, reported Dayton Elementary School’s Principal Joan Iserman in an email. However, they chose to refrain from discussing the event with children in class so they do not associate the details of it with their own school. The announcement read, “comments and questions will be gently acknowledged with reassuring responses.”

Still the fear mounts in many hearts. It is why people like a neighbor of mine emailed a group of us asking if our elementary school is really safe.

“We know they practice safety protocol, but is it really safe enough?” She asked.

A friend of mine who teaches first grade in Wayzata School District texted me Saturday night and told me he has shed tears thinking about his students, nieces and nephews.

“It’s so scary…” he texted me. But most of all, he was excited to get back to school to talk to his students about safety and just to see them. Something about this kind of tragedy makes us all want to run and grab the little ones we care for and hold onto them for dear life.

But what more can we do than that?

Yes, I do believe lessons in safety are necessary. We can and should learn all we can about keeping kids safe at school. But as NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel said in a statement issued Friday afternoon, “We know that schools generally are the safest place children can be.”

What happens if we lock up our schools so staff and students are as secure as prisoners? Will we feel safe then? What about at recess?

What about when we take them to the mall, to McDonald’s or to the ballpark for their little league baseball game? Can we really truly secure all of it?

None of us really like to acknowledge the answer. The truth is, we can’t secure any of it. No place is safe. But if we let that eat at us, soon, we’ll become a nation of agoraphobics hiding away huddled in a panic room. Alas, that is no way to live. So we must learn to deal with the very real pain and fear of tragedy and we must somehow move on.

This looks different for all of us. Some of us want to talk it out. Others seek ways to help victims or make improvements to prevent future tragedies. Many will enter into discussions about gun control, even at a political level. Still others might seek counseling. Many turn to faith.  These are all valid ways to handle the aftermath.

Many people throughout this nation are discouraged right now. The constant news coverage can create trauma for even those of us removed from the immediate situation. As one of my teen daughters said, “It’s so sad but I can’t help to watch.”

We are drawn to it because it is so shocking and so out of the ordinary. But hearing about it on constant repeat can make us feel more like it’s the norm. It can discourage us into believing we live in a completely broken world full of evil.

While there certainly is malevolence among us, I suggest we look to the good. Find the helpers and focus on them as proof there is still humanity in our world.

Think about the nearby school district who immediately offered the use of a vacant school building to house Sandy Hook students going forward. Think about the first responders who did their jobs and helped the rest of the students and staff to safety. Remember the people inside the school who saved lives by their actions. These people demonstrate the good in this world. We should hold onto that and try to find ways that we can grow our humanity and desire to help others not only in the aftermath of a tragedy but also in times of status quo.

That is why, as I stood inside CBPA surrounded by staff dressed in green and white — Sandy Hook Elementary School colors — I smiled back at those kindergarteners as they spelled out their names for me. Furthermore, that is why I attempt to find moments like these in our communities to share within the pages of our newspaper. They may seem like fluff pieces but last week’s events have made us all stop and realize how important kindness is. Caring for others is very real and important work. In the end, it’s the helpers in the aftermath of a tragedy that inspire us and help us to heal. Endeavor to be like them in your own community. But don’t wait for a tragedy to step up and do something good for others. Do something now — for no reason — simply because it’s important to keep kindness, goodness and love flourishing in this world.

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